Opinion Editorial on Redistricting Prisoners

Press Republican

Inequity must be addressed

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An estimated 20,000 inmates in New York's prisons have no known home addresses. That makes counting them in their home counties for purposes of redistricting impossible.

Both federal and state law provide for counting inmates in their home communities. In a way, that makes sense. Prison, supposedly, is a temporary residence.

But, for decades, they have been counted in the communities where they were housed. Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties are home to one federal and 10 state and correctional facilities. Those thousands of inmates have been welcome additions to the census of those counties. The higher the population, the greater the concentration of representation in the House of Representatives and the State Legislature. Take those inmates off the rolls of those communities, and the population thins, expanding the size of legislative and congressional districts and diluting the power of each representative.

Therefore, it is greatly to the interest of this region that inmates be counted as residents of the area. And there are good arguments for that because the counties where they are imprisoned provide some of the services they receive, including utilities and fire protection.

The same debate has been waged for decades over college students and members of the military. Are students and air-base personnel residents of their hometowns or their college or Air Force community?

While there are certainly arguments also for counting prison inmates as residents of where they lived before their incarceration, it turns out that, as a practical matter, for many it's impossible.

That's because the hometowns of 20,000 of the almost 56,000 inmates in New York's custody are unknown.

The Times Union of Albany recently quoted Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany) as lamenting the poor residency records available to the Department of Corrections.

That is due to several factors: Either the inmates were homeless, they lived out of state or their addresses were incomplete. In any case, a third of inmates can't be counted for the purpose of congressional representation if the count must be reliant on hometown addresses.

That unfairly punishes New York state. It can lose representation in Congress because of an inability to determine where an inmate lived.

The only fair way to address this inequity, it seems, is to allow the inmates to be counted as residents of their prison counties.

For years, powerful state Sen. Ronald B. Stafford and others benefited from this practice by keeping the inmates counted where they sleep.

Redistricting efforts are on now, using 2010 population figures. Rather than have 20,000 residents of New York state virtually disappear, the fair alternative seems to be to count inmates in their prison communities for the sake of drawing lines for representation.



A Project of the Howard Samuels New York Policy Center, Inc.
Web Development by Kallos Consulting 

Creative Commons License